Monday 24 August 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (21/50) – The Loss That Comes with Exile: Exiled and Forsaken?

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the twenty-first of the fifty emails, this one written by Margaret Killingray.

In the days of her affliction and wandering
Jerusalem remembers all the treasures
that were hers in days of old.
When her people fell into enemy hands,
there was no one to help her.
Her enemies looked at her
and laughed at her destruction…
‘Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look around and see.
Is any suffering like my suffering
that was inflicted on me,
that the LORD brought on me
in the day of his fierce anger?’
Lamentations 1:7, 12

At the heart of the Old Testament story – and arguably at the heart of all human life – is experience of loss. All of us have some understanding of what loss can mean, whether personal loss through death, broken relationships, theft or ill health, or the more extensive losses of war and destruction, flood and fire.

And this exile involved every kind of loss – the loss of men in battle, as well as all the casual and brutal deaths of executions, occupation and forced marches; the loss of routines and practices that provided daily security in familiar places; the knowledge that the land and city they loved, temple and palace, homes and fields, were a deserted wasteland; the loss of structures and liturgies that supported their communal faith and worship.

The LORD is righteous,
yet I rebelled against his command…
The LORD has done what he planned;
he has fulfilled his word,
which he decreed long ago.
He has overthrown you without pity…
I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
Lamentations 1:18, 2:17, 3:19

And, of course, loss brings the added anguish of questions about meaning and purpose; why has this happened? Why do the wicked and cruel get their way? Is this judgment or simply blind chance? Do we forgive or cry out for vengeance?

The prophets who had spoken God’s word to the people knew the truth – God had said over and over again, ‘If you obey me… If you return to me… then I will not destroy you’. The God of Abraham, Moses and David, their God, had at last lost patience and was willing to see Jerusalem destroyed, all his promises put on hold, and his people killed, or destitute and enslaved in a foreign land among foreign gods. And knowing that made the loss of exile even more bitter.

But, after the anguish of loss expressed in this powerful book, the writer of Lamentations ends with a prayer of humility and acceptance:

You, LORD, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.
Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
Restore us to yourself, LORD, that we may return;
renew our days as of old
unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure.
Lamentations 5:19-22

Margaret Killingray

For further reflection and action:

1. Read through Psalm 137. How do you react to the last verse? Think about the difference between wanting to see the Babylonians called to account and judgment, and wanting to exact personal vengeance. How should this difference work out in social issues of law and justice, and in personal loss and hurt?

2. In Stainer’s musical meditation, Crucifixion, the words from Lamentations, ‘Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?’ are used in an appeal by Jesus from the cross. Reflect on the view which understands that all the loss of exile and pain of judgment are taken into the self-giving ‘loss’ of Jesus’ death, and dealt with for ever in the resurrection.

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